Common Roots

Among all the countless tragedies and losses of this current war is the blow that has been dealt to the already fragile relationships between Jews and Arabs in Israel.  Even in the best of times, suspicion and distrust have been the default sentiments among most Israeli citizens about their “other” counterparts.  And it is against this background that I have, for years, been trying to present a more open-hearted alternative.

Crossing the cultural divide and finding a place in the lives of Palestinians, Druze and Bedouins living in Israel has been one of the most important and transformative efforts of my life – that makes me feel like there is some reason why I am living in this problematic country, instead of in the comfort of the United States.

From these acquaintances and friendships, I have come to understand and appreciate how genuinely connected these people are to this place – whose history and culture – particularly their culinary traditions, which stand out most to me – are rooted in this land.  This is where I find our common roots – because as foreign and religiously unaffiliated as I am,  I do feel a tremendous spiritual connection with this land that I can only explain as originating somewhere deep in my genetic makeup.

This common connection to the land, in fact, is what makes me feel, for example,  that my Palestinian friend Balkees and I are like sisters – that our roots are intertwined somewhere deep in ancient history.

The grapes, wheat and olives of this land grow out of earth that has been steeped in blood.  Yet for every pursuer of war, I am convinced that there are a hundred that would embrace peace with both hands if it was offered to them – no matter what side of the divide.  I pray that the day will soon come that that will happen.

cleaning sesame seeds

cleaning locally grown sesame seeds

Wild to Cultivated to Wild

What a great pleasure it is to have a hakura, or kitchen garden, next to the house – particularly when its yields peak in mid-winter. Yesterday I stripped the hakura of just about all of the swiss chard to make a crispy filo-layered pie.  Washing and trimming the fleshy leaves, I realized how viscerally I love fresh greens – wild or cultivated.  In fact, new sprouts of waxy luf leaves are unfolding all over the yard, beyond the orderly rows of the hakura.  And even if I haven’t mastered the technique of cooking them, I will soon harvest them and bring them to someone who has.  

The changing of the year has been a time of self-examination, and now, almost two years after my book came out, I’ve decided that I need to return to what I feel is my calling – to research and write about how the local foods are grown, processed and prepared in traditional ways in the Palestinian-Israeli and Bedouin communities of the Galilee.  This time, however, I want to do it in an academic context – to structure my work in an orderly fashion, and to join a community of like-minded people documenting traditional foodways around the world.

Looking for a potential home at the University of Haifa, I have spoken to several faculty members from different departments.  With Prof. Guy Bar-Oz in the Archaeology Department, who is a specialist in pre-historic and ancient foodways in this region, I had a particularly fascinating conversation.  When I told him my interest in foraging and the process of domestication of edible wild plants that I observe to be happening in our times, he countered with something that stopped me in my tracks.   How do you know that the wild mallow that you collect wasn’t once domesticated as a crop some time back in history, and just fell out of use over time and reverted back to a wild state?  How do I know indeed!  Clearly, there is so much to learn, and I am eager to dive in.

A few days ago, driving home from an exhausting day at a job that is more draining than I’d bargained for, I saw at the edge of the hills an older Bedouin man walking with three frisky little boys, presumably his grandchildren.  In his hands were two plastic bags full of freshly gathered luf.  My first urge was to pull over on the side of the road and follow him, to ask him about his foraging habits and what he had planned for that luf – his evening meal or perhaps to share with an ailing family member or friend.

But I drove on, more determined than ever that by foraging season next year, I’ll be able to ask those questions not just to satisfy my own curiosity, but to make their answers accessible to anyone who shares an interest in hearing them.  And I know that there are many, indeed.

stripped chard

Stripped Chard

 

jan luf

Wild Cousin Luf

The Hakura

I recently received a telephone call from a man named Adel, from the nearby Bedouin village of Ayedat.  He is in the final stages of submitting his master’s thesis and needed help with editing the English abstract.  I frequently edit English texts on you-name-the-topic, but when he told me the subject of his thesis, I was especially pleased to help.

Adel had researched and written about the changing role of the hakura in Bedouin society in Northern Israel.  A hakura is a kind of kitchen garden that is kept next to the house. In Arab farming communities, maintaining a hakura was once very common.  According to Adel, however, only when the Bedouins here in the north gave up their nomadic ways and settled into villages did they take up the practice of keeping a hakura.

The thesis described what plants and trees were commonly found in the hakura and how they were used.  He explained that no self-respecting hakura was without an olive and fig tree, and the religious significance of those trees related to references in the Koran.

His research concluded that the hakura is a dying practice – that the young generation of Bedouins is quite content to buy their vegetables in the produce store.  The younger women he interviewed told him that they were too busy to work in a hakura.  I asked him if he felt that that answer really reflected the entire picture.

Look at my hands, he said, holding them out in front of me.  They were rough and etched with black lines.  The women teachers at my school always comment on my hands – do you think they want to ruin their fingernails working in the dirt?

Abu Malek told me that, in the old times, after a man plowed the ground for the hakura, all the rest of the work – planting, weeding, harvesting – was done by women.  How understandable that women today prefer to pay a few shekels over this backbreaking work.

The hakura may soon be a thing of the past, but Adel told me that one of the projects he plans to initiate is to circulate a questionnaire in Arab schools, asking children to interview their parents and grandparents about their experience with these home gardens.  At least another generation will maintain the hakura in their living memories.

*****

My book, Breaking Bread in Galilee, was reviewed in the current (Winter) issue of Lilith magazine.  You can read it here:

http://galileecuisine.co.il/data/images/LILWi12_final_BreakingBread.pdf

A Foraging Celebration

Hussein's daughter with zaatar

Yet another rainy day and we can’t believe our good fortune – this has been the wettest winter for years and the landscape is celebrating.  The hills are lush and bright with wild flowers.  And of course, for foragers, there is a bounty of edible wild plants to pick.  We started the wild asparagus season early and enjoyed several meals of them, including an excellent asparagus soup. 

With my culinary tours I brought a group to the Bedouin village of Kaabiye.  Our host, Hussein took us to see edible plants in two surroundings – forest and field.  In the forest we found luf, zaatar, asparagus and saina (large bumpy leaves of the sage family), and at the periphery of an agricultural field, we found hubeisa (mallow), selek (wild beet greens), humeida (sorrel) and a thorny plant that we peeled and ate the stalk of. 

Saina - the winter alternative for stuffed grape leaves

Afterwards, his wife Riba prepared a meal for us of ftayir, which are pastry turnovers filled with a mixture of wild beet greens, zaatar and hot pepper, saina leaves stuffed with rice, and the greens which we had learned about. 

Everyone enjoyed tromping around and learning about the different plants, and of course the meal. But one of the participants told me that the highlight was being a guest in a local Bedouin home, which makes me realize that my culinary tour idea focusing on home hospitality has serious potential.

Why Can’t We Cook Together?

These past weeks I’ve been feeling too disheartened to write, but the outings I had yesterday and today, investigating places for my culinary tours, did much to lift my spirits.  I started Thursday morning at Lavona Grove, on an exceptionally beautiful slope overlooking the Sea of Galilee. That morning, missiles from Lebanon had hit sites in the north, and my heart sunk to my feet at the prospect of the war spreading to a northern front. But I decided to stick to my plan, and head north to the Sea of Galilee to a site I’d been wanting to investigate. Two brothers – farmers from a nearby moshav – converted a piece of land between their mango and olive orchards too rocky and steep to cultivate, into a grove of exotic fruit trees grown from seedlings which they collected around the world. The older brother, Shimon, believes the trees thrive there because of the salubrious climate and the fact that this land was never used for agriculture. In fact, there was an astonishing variety of trees and fruit and I could only marvel at the ingenuity and creativity of nature.

            Shimon leads tours of the grove, tasting whatever fruit happens to be in season. I sampled some small brown berries that reminded me of banana, something white and cottony that was very sweet, and other things which I don’t remember (negligently not taking notes…). At the end of his tours, some kind of snack or meal is served – Shimon is, from what I have gathered, a very talented chef and caterer.  He gave me a bottle of olive oil seasoned with Persian zaatar and one of vinegar infused with raspberries – both made by him from fruits of the grove.  The place is an oasis of beauty, tranquility and sensory delight and I can’t wait to bring guests there.

What did he call this fruit?

What did he call this fruit?

            A half hour drive took me to the Bedouin village of Husaniya where I met with Zahiya and Fawzia Suaid. They are young women in their late thirties – sisters-in-law and neighbors – who have started a business leading edible wild plant picking tours. They were written up in the weekend section of one of the newspapers and I wanted to meet them to see if I could work with them for my tours, and to talk to them about the growing interest among the Jewish Israeli public in this aspect of Arab home cooking.

            Zahiya is animated and dynamic and we talk about the challenges of starting a new business. I mention the unfortunate timing – just when there is such a deep economic crisis. “But that’s not a problem at all” Fawzia interjects. “When people don’t have money, then it’s the perfect time to go pick wild plants.”  Both Zahiya and Fawzia talk about how important it is to them to maintain the traditional foodways they were brought up with. Outside in the valley, now green after the winter rains, a shepherd herds his flock of sheep and I hope I can return to this pastoral setting to pick and cook with these lovely and modestly ambitious women.

            Today, Friday, a group of friends, Ron and I went to Acco – that beautiful, Crusader port town – for a cooking tour with a local guide named Abdu Matta.  Abdu is a 10th generation Acco resident – and a colorful, ebullient and very knowledgeable fellow. We met him first thing in the morning and he escorted us through the narrow stone streets to his parents’ home – a 400-year-old structure with an inner courtyard.

In the small kitchen, his step-mother – a warm, diminutive and energetic woman – prepared with us a typical Acco Arab meal – vegetarian this time. We chopped hubeisa (mallow) and ellet (chicory) – local wild greens – and sautéed them with plenty of onion and olive oil. Then we made soup with orange lentils and bulgur dish cooked in a tomato base. 

 

Cooking hubeisa

Cooking hubeisa

While the food was cooking Abdu took us out to the old market of Acco which is one of the most colorful and exciting markets in Israel. We bought spices and friki (roasted green wheat), wonderful hard biscuits with anise seed that I love with my tea, katayif pancakes, and fresh vegetables for Friday night dinner. Everyone greets Abdu and walking in the market with him, you almost feel like a local yourself.  He took us to an ancient-looking bakery where the old baker slid fresh pita slathered with zaatar and olive oil into an enormous wood-burning oven, then pulled them out and served them to us – indescribably delicious.

oven1

Back at the house, the table was set and we dug into the soup, scooping up the greens with pita.  We finished with tea and the special cake made of farina wheat soaked in syrup called harisa.  Afterwards, one of the group commented on how comfortable and at ease she felt with Abdu and his family, and I was reminded yet again how cooking together bridges gaps – age, culture, religion. How badly we need this kind of activity in these awful times. 

Luf at Last

Last weekend Ron and I were guests at our very old friends’, Fatma and Abdullah, in the Bedouin village of Kaabiye. I told them about my interest in cooking luf, and their daughter Hal’la, who happened to be visiting, invited me to come to her home one day and she would show me how.  This edible plant, which grows wild in these parts, is considered by local Arabs to be a delicacy and powerfully healthy. It does, however, bear a toxin which needs to be neutralized in cooking, and my one attempt to prepare luf on my own practically sent me to the hospital. But I was determined to experience the good side of luf (see my post of December 1) and this was my opportunity. 

 

We set a date for this afternoon and I drove to her home in the village of Ayadat, about 20 minutes from my home. Just in my own yard I had managed to pick a full bug of the ornate fleshy leaves which I presented to Hal’la, along with a bag of lemons I’d picked which I knew we would need.

 

Hal’la is a warm and gracious woman in her late 20’s – a housewife and mother of 5. Her husband is a Hebrew teacher in the local high school. We sat at the dining room table of her neat and well appointed home and she showed me how to remove the fibrous stem and spine of each leaf, fold it in half and place it on a pile. About half of the leaves I’d picked – the young, tender-looking ones – ended up in the reject pile with the stems. They were, as she translated from Arabic, “brother of luf” and would ruin the dish.

 

With the de-spining finished, Hal’la showed me how to take a pile of the folded leaves, wrap a big leaf around them, then slice the whole roll in half. Then she put one rolled half on top of the other and cut through them to make thin shreds of the leaves. When that was done, we chopped onion, sautéed it in a generous pool of olive oil, and when it was transparent, added the shredded luf.  Soon it was emitting plenty of liquid but Hal’la kept stirring the mixture so it would steam away.  This, she assured me, would prevent any unpleasant sensation in one’s mouth from eating it.  

Hal'la and her daughter

Hal'la and her daughter

 

 

When most of the liquid had dissipated, she added another full cup of water and again stirred constantly until that, too was gone.  I squeezed juice from about 5 small lemons and we added that to the mixture – after about an hour of cooking, the luf was a deep green, thick stew, and ready to eat.

 

Hal’la’s husband in the meantime went to bring fresh pita bread and we all broke off bite-sized pieces and dug in with gusto. Yes, it did have a very nice flavor. But within seconds the entire roof of my mouth and throat started to tingle with little needles. It wasn’t intense enough to prevent me from smiling and exclaiming over how delicious it was. But it seems that luf and I are not meant to be. 

 

The finished product

The finished product